SI Vault
 
THE FRAGILE GIANT
Robert F. Jones
December 12, 1977
For all its vast and rugged scope, Alaska is fragile almost to the point of delicacy. Scarred by the passage of a D-9 Caterpillar tractor, a stretch of tundra may take a decade to heal itself. Dwarf birch and willow trees not much bigger than shrubs in the Lower Forty-Eight are actually venerable octogenarians with a frail grip on life. Even a single burly barren-ground grizzly, one of the strongest and fiercest animals on earth, needs 100 square miles of territory for forage. And the Arctic caribou herd of 240,000 animals—a seeming ocean of undulating antlers and meat during migration—must have 90 million acres of empty land to fulfill its role in the ecosystem. In the icy waters where winter is unrelieved by sunlight, fish grow slowly at best. Thus the slightest excess of pressure can empty a stream or lake system of life in no time.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 12, 1977

The Fragile Giant

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

For all its vast and rugged scope, Alaska is fragile almost to the point of delicacy. Scarred by the passage of a D-9 Caterpillar tractor, a stretch of tundra may take a decade to heal itself. Dwarf birch and willow trees not much bigger than shrubs in the Lower Forty-Eight are actually venerable octogenarians with a frail grip on life. Even a single burly barren-ground grizzly, one of the strongest and fiercest animals on earth, needs 100 square miles of territory for forage. And the Arctic caribou herd of 240,000 animals—a seeming ocean of undulating antlers and meat during migration—must have 90 million acres of empty land to fulfill its role in the ecosystem. In the icy waters where winter is unrelieved by sunlight, fish grow slowly at best. Thus the slightest excess of pressure can empty a stream or lake system of life in no time.

Because of this fragility, the fact that Alaska is now in a turmoil of undeclared civil war could spell disaster in short order for America's biggest state. The war, of course, is between preservationists and developers over the future land use of the state's 375.3 million acres. And on a lesser—but more violent—level, between Alaska's 65,000 "natives" (Aleuts, Eskimos and Indians) and the rest of the state's 335,000 residents.

In 1959, after Alaska entered the union as the 49th state, the Federal Government allowed Alaskans to select 104.4 million acres for future economic development. Unfortunately, the Statehood Act ignored the claims of the natives for land. That oversight was rectified in 1971 with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which gave the tribes 43.7 million acres surrounding their communities and a cash settlement of $962 million—or $14,800 per man, woman and child. Suddenly the natives were rich beyond their wildest dreams. At the same time, the government ordered the Interior Department to tick off another 80 million acres for four proposed systems: national parks, wildlife refuges, wild or scenic rivers and national forests. Two years later, then Secretary of the Interior Rogers C. B. Morton proposed to the President and Congress that the acreage be increased to 83.4 million. However, Congress failed to act. In 1976 there was a great flurry of activity because environmentalists realized legislation had to be passed by Dec. 18, 1978 or, by the terms of the President's order, the protective withdrawal would lapse and the lands would revert to "multiple use"—a euphemism for development and exploitation—under the Bureau of Land Management.

On Jan. 4 of this year, Rep. Morris Udall (D., Ariz.), a noted environmentalist, introduced new legislation (HR-39) that would up the acreage in question to 116 million, doubling the size of the U.S. national park system, and in effect locking it up for all time.

Then last September, before Udall's bill was voted on by the Alaska Lands Subcommittee. Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus proposed to Subcommittee Chairman John Seiberling that only 93 million acres be included in the four systems. Seiberling and Udall then jointly revised HR-39, setting the figure at 102 million acres, and the bill was adopted as the document for further congressional deliberation by the subcommittee.

HR-39 outraged many Alaskans. Here the natives had been given a huge hunk of good land, and now the Feds were proposing a lockup of most of the rest. Alaska's Senator Ted Stevens and Representative Don Young, both Republicans, retaliated with an antilockup scheme. They would like to see only 25 million acres designated as "core areas" with strict antidevelopment safeguards, these cores to be surrounded by another 55 million acres in "buffer" areas, which would be overseen by a joint federal-state commission empowered to classify the lands as either "restrictive" or "diversified" (i.e., exploitable). If a valuable oil or mineral strike were made on these lands, they could be immediately opened to development. The fight between the lockup faction and the use-it types is unresolved, but deep down many Alaskans feel that the lockups will ultimately win.

While these arguments raged, the newly wealthy natives were getting richer. Ranging out from their own lands, in new boats powered by new motors and new heavy-duty monofilament gill nets that they could barely afford before, they began taking fish as if there were no tomorrow. With their new rifles and shotguns, they blasted every bear, moose or caribou that crossed their paths. Though nominally subject to state fish and game regulations, arrested natives usually demand a jury trial. And because the trial is inevitably held in their own village, they get off either scot-free or with a slap on the wrist and a sly wink. Last year, for instance, a boatload of Eskimos in the Tikchik Lakes region were nabbed by wardens with more than their limit of rainbow trout. The natives had in their possession 77 rainbows that averaged—repeat, averaged—10 pounds. Each of those fish represented from $1,000 to $3,000 in lodge and guide fees to the scattered fishing-camp owners of the region. The Eskimos were acquitted.

Lodge owners who speak out against the native depredations find that the war pipe can be quickly relit. One owner on Lake Iliamna, who was quoted as being a critic of native fishing techniques, returned to his lodge in the spring to find it ruined. The freezer had been destroyed, water pipes ripped out, windows smashed, outbuildings burned. He is now out of business, as are others who have left their places untended over the winter to come back and find nothing but a pile of damp ashes.

"The Togiak," says lodge owner Bill Martin, "is the greatest natural sport-fishing stream in North America. Nine species offish use it—king, silver, red, dog and chum salmon; rainbow, char, grayling, Dolly among the trout.

"Take the reds, or sockeye, as some people call them. Five years ago, when they pulled a count in the Nuyakuk, about 28,000 sock-eye came up the river to spawn. This year—the return year for that species—230,000 fish returned. That's an eight-to-one return, when 1�-to-one is considered good. Such a strong return shows that the river can be immensely productive so long as men don't kill off the spawners. It was phenomenal.

Continue Story
1 2